Various Artists

Silhouettes & Statues: A Gothic Revolution 1978-1986

A sprawling decade of goth, from the strange to the unexpected

It’s little surprise that Cherry Red – which over the fast few years has absolutely reinvented itself into a top-notch reissue and scene overview empire – is behind the latest attempt to clarify the questions of what goth is. There have been goth boxsets before – one 1990s entry was simply called Goth Box, and over in the US Rhino made a stab at it last decade – plus any number of random compilations or mixes. Rather than trying to address what ultimately has become something unwieldy, especially as newer bands emerge and older performers gain new attention, Silhouettes & Statues: A Gothic Revolution 1978-1986 sets out not only a chronological brief but a geographic one, concentrating on England, whether acts were local or relocated from elsewhere. It’s a smart decision: goth as conceived and haphazardly codified was first and foremost not merely Anglophilic but Anglocentric.

Still, to get back to the original question: what’s goth? In her short introductory essay Natasha Scharf does a great job in noting how the term got associated with certain performers and acts from the late 70s on, in the creative space opened up by punk’s success. She also describes how certain musical forebears from the 60s on had laid plenty of groundwork – even digging up an intriguing use of the term "gothic rock" with reference to a 1967 Doors concert review. Still, as she flatly says at one point, “defining goth isn’t easy.” It’s just as important to look beyond the music to whatever was in the air in general. Was it due to a revived cold war? A revulsion towards Thatcherism? Just a new version of ‘overeducated’ (and notably white) teenage angst? Simply another return of glam in darker clothes? Present one way to approach it, and another way suggests itself.

That, though, is part of what makes Silhouettes such an enjoyable (if perhaps daunting) five CDs. It may not be entirely the case with the later, younger bands on the set, but absolutely none of the earliest groups began playing together with the self-conscious idea of ‘Hey, let’s be a goth band.’ Genre founders by default can’t be wilfully creating something they didn’t know about until it was labelled. So the question becomes less “how do these groups all resemble each other?” and more “how does the new territory open up, and who were the explorers?”

Setting aside non-English/English-based acts, it’s notable from the get-go that pretty much every name you would expect to find in such a collection is represented, except one. Siouxsie And The Banshees are absolutely noteworthy by their absence, though of course they never liked being confined by genre straitjackets. At the same time, they helped establish the idea of subverted expectations early on – not just musically but as a group who were able to maintain both an underground and a chart profile. And that’s what’s important to remember about this whole thing from a distance – it was simultaneously subcultural and impossible to miss, one of many sonic stews and approaches that could and did feature in NME, Smash Hits, Radio 1 and Top Of The Pops simultaneously in the ferment of New Pop.

So in the absence of the Banshees, it kicks off with Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay,’ an inspired choice because it’s at once a band that clearly fits in the lineage but isn’t the song most people would immediately name from them. Throughout the box, similar heavy hitters feature in slightly unexpected ways: The Cure’s ‘The Hanging Garden’, easily their most aggressive single from their earliest years; Cocteau Twins’ ‘In Our Angelhood’, a coruscating blast of sheet-metal guitar and cool then sweeping vocals; Bauhaus’s ‘Stigmata Martyr’, absolute horror-movie/Catholic guilt mania turned into almost animalistic roars and snarls.

That sense of just stepping outside the obvious recurs at many points: Red Lorry Yellow Lorry being represented by ‘Take It All’ is an inspired choice, combining all their bleak power with just enough of a soaring rise in the chorus to really connect. And could any goth comp not include something from Fields Of The Nephilim, even if it’s one of their earliest releases, ‘Trees Come Down’? Though it must be said Carl McCoy doesn’t sound as doom-laden – or echo-laden – as he would later.

It can be – maybe even should be – argued that a comprehensive study of the place and time would include multiple cuts from many of these acts, though where one band led to the existence of others, that’s a nice out. Bauhaus is perhaps the most obvious example, thanks to the appearance of songs by Love And Rockets (‘Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven’, their drone-funk celebration of their glam adolescence), Tones on Tail (‘Burning Skies’, a woozy, late night at the bar that mutates into a horror film) and Dali’s Car (‘His Box’, as wonderfully catchy and weird an art-funk-pop track, if it’s even that, as may have ever been made).

Elsewhere there is the continuing evolution of Southern Death Cult into Death Cult, Ian Astbury the one person connecting them both, from SDC’s charging ‘Moya’ to the equally energetic but more spacious ‘Ghost Dance’ by the latter, while Cocteau Twins’ veteran Will Heggie, their original bassist, turns up with his subsequent band Lowlife and their 1986 song ‘Gallery of Shame’. Then there’s the odd thread connecting Sheffield’s Artery, whose 1981 song ‘Into the Garden’, a quietly energetic number that almost sound like a darker pop take on Graham Lewis’s Wire work circa 154, and Sisters of Mercy -namely that Artery’s guitarist Simon Hinkler joined up with Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams from the latter band to form The Mission, whose ‘Stay With Me’ delivers a full blast of sweeping chart-hit pomp.

Sometimes the impact is all down to contrasting survivors’ sounds with their current selves. Nick Cave, having transformed himself into a sternly weary preacher in recent years, howls and spits on the Birthday Party’s ‘Release the Bats’ like he’s gargled gasoline, while the demented sleaze of the music similarly seems some distance away from the Bad Seeds (though maybe not Grinderman). Similarly, the vision of John Lydon’s latter-day Brexit griper and now near-permanent Sex Pistols revenant sounds millions of miles away from the hovering vocal spectre featuring over Martyn Atkins’s percussion on the title track of Public Image Limited’s Flowers Of Romance.

That emphasis on the percussion carries over into the track immediately following it on the set – Danielle Dax’s ‘Bed Caves,’ a 1983 cut that’s one of her most spindly and unsettled – as well as serving as a partial calling card to the whole set. It’s not that every song sounds like it – far from it – but goth often seemed perfectly willing to embrace the bottom end to a degree that plenty of other bands felt either unwilling or unable to try: it could easily make you want to dance. (Dax herself credits the feeling on this song to her love of krautrock, and little doubt Jaki Liebezeit would approve.) Meantime, if the percussive drive on a song like Skeletal Family’s ‘She Cries Alone’ is more of a roiling rock punch, it’s no less compelling for it.

At the same time, goth could just as easily be defined by the extremities of the high end – more than a few guitarists had Ziggy-era Mick Ronson on the brain, though they felt less weighty in impact, whether through the limitations of recording circumstance or choice. Even more distinct, however, could be the extremities in the singing, especially if a male singer favoured strained falsettos over deep rumblings – Gene Loves Jezebel’s featured entry, 1983’s stomping ‘Screaming for Emmalene’, demonstrates that, with Jay Aston’s voice in falsetto to the full. (In another example of the excellence of the liner notes, Aston talks about how the song was written for his stillborn daughter, and the soul-crushing wail that concludes the track comes from Emmalene’s mother. You’ll never hear the song quite the same way again knowing that.)

For some, the founding of the Batcave club in London in 1982 proved the turning point for a self-conscious approach to goth. Batcave regulars like Specimen, with the choppy guitar and sly chorus of ‘Returning (From A Journey),’ and Alien Sex Fiend take a bow. Of course, the trappings of the Batcave didn’t appeal to all. If you never thought of yourself as specifically part of a black-clad brigade, or wearing macintoshes or whatever else was seen to be a sign of the tribe at work, that’s one factor to start with; another lies in the sheer fluidity – arguably to the point of pointlessness – of distinguishing between genre approaches. Modern Eon is a great example – is their 1981 track ‘Euthenics’ goth or just a strikingly beautiful, driving song with distinct but not stereotypically ‘goth’ vocals?

Similarly, you’ll easily get arguments that an act like Clock DVA could be termed more post-punk, funk or something else instead, and that their early, cassette-only track ‘The Female Mirror’ was more DIY murmuring as they reached towards a further sound. Penetration’s ‘Stone Heroes,’ meanwhile, would be seen by most as straight-up punk from 1978, while one of the UK’s punk founders, the Damned, almost indirectly merged into goth as such thanks to Dave Vanian’s vocals, look and general interests; the elegant spooky and saucy ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ – from The Black Album, of course – stands out precisely because it follows its own aesthetic than simply bending towards to a subculture.

Turn it around, though, and what’s considered indisputably ‘goth’ is just as wide-reaching. Why can’t ‘Floorshow’ by The Sisters Of Mercy be more considered a snarling, scratchy analogue to any number of Downtown 81 cuts out of New York City, for instance? And in the liner notes for The Rose of Avalanche’s 1985 song ‘LA Rain,’ that group’s Paul James Berry is frank about it being specifically a tribute to the Paisley Underground of the same era.

Further examples of difficulties in drawing a line around goth abound. That the Chameleons have long been considered part of the goth universe is something almost totally at odds with their own vision and presentation at the time and since – but it’s still no surprise that their rampaging 1982 debut ‘In Shreds’ takes a bow here. Similarly, Sad Lovers & Giants never have seemed to fit in anywhere over all these years, but the sax-tinged low-gear pep of ‘Things We Never Did’ fits in here well enough. Meanwhile, The Associates remain best known for their amazing and uncategorisable string of smash pop singles from Sulk, but it’s the earlier – and truly unsettling – ‘Q Quarters,’ with a lyric based on Billy Mackenzie hearing from a family member about working in a morgue during the second world war, that gets a nod.

Meanwhile, there are the acts whose inclusion is immediately obvious, but where the song choices are unexpected. Dead Can Dance are usually cited as goth for their astonishing fusions of musics old and new, so hearing ‘The Arcane,’ a cut from their earliest days, serves as a reminder that they started as a rock band, but one with their own unusual elegance and power. Similarly In The Nursery, famed for their series of electronic orchestral albums and soundtracks and further sonic explorations, appear with 1985’s harrowing ‘Breach Birth,’ a drum pound and a skittering violin-like figure anchoring an unsettled performance with distant screams, dark pronouncements and other not-quite-normal sonics.

It’s the true contextual obscurities that really make this set sing as a result, though – if the ‘big’ acts are, almost, overfamiliar for an in-depth audience, more general listeners might hear them just that little more freshly, and some songs just retain a perfect, near feral power after all this time. That in turn makes the songs that never broke out that much more intriguing – it’s a good statement about how deep and wide were the approaches that made up what came to be goth. There was never a singular path, and the routes crisscrossed the country.

As the set progresses the oddities and intriguing below-the-radar numbers turn up more and more, and plenty of them slot alongside the big hitters as fascinating alternate approaches. The seething, spitting anger of 1982’s ‘Caged’ by Bradford’s 1919 contrasts with its distant, hovering, electronic backing, something shared conceptually if not entirely sonically by Sheffield’s Siiiii, whose ‘Is Still’ from 1984 gives off a similar feeling of a roar from the depths.

Not everything is suddenly revelatory in a positive sense – indeed, often the selections confirm exactly what you might expect, and sometimes songs start to blend into one another, which is inevitable over the course of such an extensive set. Sometimes the name is enough to tell you all you need to know: Blood And Roses feature with a 1985 song called ‘Spit On Your Grave’. There’s also the joy of weird and wonderful label names to go with the band names and songtitles, near-unknown or half-remembered names like Rot, Statik, Rebirth, Eden, In Phaze, Be-Wicked, Criminal Damage and more.

Me, honestly, I’m just glad And Also The Trees get some shine, with 1984’s ‘Out Of The Moving Life of Circles’. With an ear for classic English literature, the countryside, history as a strange and mysterious place, an unwinding arrangement that seems to just gently slow down enough as it goes, both the band and the song remind me about how much I love whatever this was supposed to be, generated for whatever reasons – and how that band, like many others featured here, continue in music to this day.

Goth was never as dead or undead as all that, because maybe the secret to its identity, to what it really was, always lay in having a fiercely pulsing heart – even if it was a telltale one under the floorboards.

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